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Did The March On Washington Improve Blacks’ Economic Outlook?


This week marks the 50th celebration of the March on Washington — perhaps you've heard something about it? — and it's a little hard to resist the urge to compare the America of 1963 to 2013, to see how they've diverged.

Although the "I have a dream" and the "content of their character" bits tend to get top billing in these remembrances, the event was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — and it's worth noting that the word "jobs" comes before "freedom." Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP, and the march's organizers were calling for some very specific economic policies they thought would improve the material well-being of black folks in America.

Well, according to a report released by the Census Bureau on the eve of the march's anniversary, the median income of blacks has nearly doubled, the poverty rate has fallen by 14 percent. Twenty-six percent of blacks had high school diplomas in 1964; 85 percent did in 2012. And over that span, the number of black folks who completed four years of college jumped from 4 percent to 21 percent.

But despite those dramatic gains, the economic picture over the last 50 years for blacks has been a mixed bag: incontrovertible, substantial progress — a lot of it due in part to policies the march helped enshrine — while some troubling disparities remain stubbornly in place.

Here's some of what the original marchers called for, and here's what happened since then.

A $2 Per Hour Minimum Wage Nationwide

One of the tent poles of the March on Washington was an increase in the federal minimum wage, which was $1.25 in September 1963. That would be equal to about $9.25 in 2013 dollars, two dollars higher than the current federal minimum wage. The march organizers wanted a wage floor of $2 an hour. But two dollars in 1963 would have been more than $14.80 in 2013 — more than double the current federal minimum wage, which hasn't been raised since 2009. It's pretty safe to say that that goal has gone unrealized.

(In case you were wondering, the state of Washington's minimum wage is the highest in the country — $9.19 — and it comes the closest to holding constant with the actual 1963 goal of the march's organizers.)

A Federal Law Prohibiting Discrimination In Public Or Private Hiring

Another major aim for the march was a law that barred discrimination in public and private hiring. Two years later, in 1965, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was up and running, and was granted the power to sue employers who discriminated against applicants or employees. That's a definite win for the marchers there.

"In the 1960s, there were a number of occupations that blacks just couldn't get — you were categorically blocked," said Algernon Austin, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. "Now you can see blacks in almost every occupation — including in the White House."

But fighting discrimination is like trying to inoculate against a mutating disease: The socially and legally sanctioned discrimination of the 1960s gave way to stealthier-but-still-dangerous forms of bias.

"It's still the case that while there's little categorical exclusion, we still see evidence that employers prefer white workers," Austin said. He pointed to much-cited research that found that people with "black-sounding" names were less likely to be hired for jobs than people without them, even when their qualifications were about the same, and that a white man with a criminal record applying for a job was more likely to receive a response from an employer than a black man without one.

The march's organizers also hoped to put a dent in the double-digit unemployment rate among blacks (10 percent). That figure hasn't improved in the 50 years since; indeed, the black unemployment rate over the last half-century — 11.6 percent — suggests that black America is operating in a permanent economic recession. And since 1963, the average rate of black unemployment has hovered at more than twice the unemployment for whites.

(During the recent recession, black unemployment crept up to nearly 15 percent.)

Those dismal numbers might still understate just how bad the employment situation is. "To be counted as unemployed, you have to be actively looking for work," Austin said. " In communities where it's very difficult for people to find work, people drop out of the labor work because their chances are so small." In other words, there are untold numbers of unemployed black folks we've just ceased to count.

This is one of the big reasons why the median household income for African Americans remains so far from parity with whites, despite some progress. "When you're unemployed, you're only losing wealth or you're going into debt," Austin said.

It's really hard to separate out the racial disparities in household wealth from America's housing policy. Blacks were cut off from the avenues to home ownership that helped create the white middle class in the middle of the century — they were barred from many colleges and buying homes in new suburbs that whites could take advantage of with the G.I. Bill — and so it's been a game of catch-up ever since.

Household wealth for blacks was on an upward trend for a stretch in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to growing numbers of black homeowners.

And then the housing bubble burst.

Places like Prince George's County, the wealthiest majority-black county in the country, were rocked by the housing crisis. Thousands of black people lost their homes to foreclosure.

Black people with excellent credit were steered toward subprime loans, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. "There's also evidence to suggest that housing segregation played a role," Austin said. "The more segregated a community, the more [likely there was] to be subprime lending in the community."

In 2011, after the havoc wrought by the crisis, the percentage of black people who owned homes was essentially unchanged from 1970, the earliest year the data was available. And three decades of black economic progress essentially vanished in smoke.

Which brings us to another major peg of the march.

Immediate Elimination Of School Segregation

Though the Supreme Court barred segregation in schools since Brown v. Board of Education, it was still the norm in practice eight years later when the March on Washington rolled around. Fifty years on, after white flight and busing, American schools remain deeply segregated.

"Laws that sentenced blacks to third-class educations — those were the easy targets," Andrew Rotherham, a co-founder of the education think tank Bellwether Education Partners, told the Atlantic last year. He said that American American schools are as segregated as they were in the late 1960s. "What's driving segregation now is housing patterns, and that's much more difficult to solve. It's also not necessarily a problem you can solve with education."

According to a report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, three-quarters of all black students attend schools that are majority nonwhite, and more than a third attend schools where white students make up 10 percent or less of the school population.

Maybe surprisingly, the South had become the most desegregated region in the country. But the UCLA researchers said the South was becoming resegregated more quickly than anywhere else in the nation.

The educational outcomes of black children and white children remain glaring. Whites are nearly twice as likely to graduate from college than blacks, and that disparity informs, perpetuates, explains many of those messy, aforementioned issues like unemployment, earning potential, and housing choices.

The whole exercise of checking the march's platform can seem obvious and ham-handed, and many folks would argue that this weekend should be about celebrating the hard-earned freedoms catalyzed by the march and its moment. But its planners called it the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom for a reason.